About 12,000 years ago, the valleys of western Montana lay beneath a lake nearly 2,000 feet deep. Glacial Lake Missoula formed as the Cordilleran Ice Sheet dammed the Clark Fork River just as it entered Idaho. The rising water behind the glacial dam weakened it until water burst through in a catastrophic flood that raced across Idaho, Oregon, and Washington toward the Pacific Ocean. Thundering waves and chunks of ice tore away soils and mountainsides, deposited giant ripple marks, created the scablands of eastern Washington and carved the Columbia River Gorge. Over the course of centuries, Glacial Lake Missoula filled and emptied in repeated cycles, leaving its story embedded in the land.
The Clark Fork and Flathead Rivers of Sanders County are testimony to the forces of nature. It was along these rivers that the Northern Pacific Railway constructed tracks that eventually connected the western terminus with the east.
After the waters receded from the Great Glacial Lake Missoula, First Peoples arrived forming the core of what today we know as The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Part of the 1.317 million acres of the Flathead Reservation lies in Sanders county. This aboriginal territory exceeded 20 million acres at the time of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty. Our towns most closely associated with the reservation are Dixon, Old Agency, Hot Springs, Camas Prairie and Niarada.
As explorers started crisscrossing the Northern hemisphere, many found their way through this region, including David Thompson, (aka Koo Koo Sint or Stargazer by native people) one of the most well known fur traders, surveyors and map-makers who explored and mapped this area for the Hudson Bay Company and later for the North West Company.
Other settlement in Sanders county sprouted as the railroad pushed through the Clark Fork Valley. At the same time as the railroad was being completed, gold was discovered in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Mountains and the closest dropping off point for eastern prospectors was at present-day Belknap. A trail led from the tracks, up Little and Big Beaver Creeks and over the mountains into Eagle City and Murray in Idaho. It’s estimated that up to 5,000 men passed through Belknap, drinking in the saloons and sleeping in tents or one of the hotels. When the community of Thompson Falls forced the train to stop, another more popular trail developed up Prospect Creek over the route known now as Thompson Pass. At this time a fire started in Belknap, destroying much of what had been built.
With the advent of the railroad, land hungry men and women took advantage of the Homestead Act. The original homestead act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln but it was not utilized until the railroad came through the area. Then eager Easterners sought land to farm, building crude shacks, tilling and planting the soil, and raising meat to help families survive the often long and cold winters.
The population of the county’s settlements are small, the largest being Thompson Falls, the county seat, and Plains, home to the community’s only hospital and site of the annual county fair.
The Clark Fork River runs parallel to the towns on Highway 200 from Paradise to Heron, and provides tons of recreational opportunities, with fishing, boating, and water skiing, at the top of the list!